Getting smart: Prime Minister Narendra Modi says cities will no longer be built on rivers or even highways, but on intelligent, high-speed digital infrastructure. Lighting companies say that's their turf.

What do you get when the prime minister of the world’s second most populated country launches a $1.2 billion programme to build 100 new ‘smart cities?’ Answer: A rush of companies wanting to sell digital lighting products like LEDs (light emitting diodes), control, networks and sensors that would help form the cities’ technology backbone.

That’s what’s happening in India, where in mid-July Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged the whopping sum to help build the 100 smart cities he had announced a month earlier.

Exactly what a ‘smart city’ is, and how as a nation you build a hundred of them is a matter for discussion.

But by this week, the talk among lighting stalwarts like Philips, Havells, Bajaaj Electricials and Toshiba all boiled down to one word – opportunity.

‘The companies are looking to tap opportunities, especially with their LED lighting products that are durable and energy efficient for both in-house and street lighting, which could suit well with the requirements of the smart cities,’ India’s The Economic Times reported.

Indeed, as lighting goes digital – an LED is a semiconductor and thus lends itself well to communication networks – the industry is positioning itself as the foundation for modern urban networks.

Lights would not only become easier to control both remotely and by onsite sensors that detect whether or not they’re needed at any one moment, but their electronic housings would also accommodate sensors that could relay information. They could, for example provide updates on traffic, on crowds or on air quality, among many other possibilities.

A testbed near Copenhagen run by the Danish Outdoor Lighting Lab recently began a collaborative effort to develop the concepts. Philips and other vendors are participating there, but meanwhile they’re not waiting around for the results. Rather they are chasing business in places like India, where The Economic Times rounded up plenty of comments indicating industry enthusiasm for smart cities: 

‘If the government is saying that there would be 100 smart cities coming up, then of course LED lighting would play a big part in it,’ said Sumit Joshi, Philips Lighting’s senior director marketing in India.

‘Smart city definitely would be one of our major operation areas. We are working in that direction. Good opportunities are there. The government is going to set up 100 smart cities… The pilot project is going in Bangalore and we are working closely following it,’ Sundararajan R, President Lighting Business Group, Bajaj Electricals, told PTI (news agency Press Trust of India)

Similarly, Havells is also planning to expand its LED maufacturing capacity at its Neemrana, Rajasthan plant by investing more capex next year.

‘The smart city projects would be future growth driver for the lighting industry,’ said Havells India President Sunil Sikka.

The smart city initiative helped drived Toshiba’s recent decision to set up manufacturing in India through its GreenStar research and development subsidiary. Toshiba anticipates 40 percent annual growth in the country over the next five years, much of it from LEDs, with smart cities playing an integral role.

‘It will be a good opportunity for us,’  said GreenStar Director India Technology & Operation Centre Sarosij Sengupta. ‘We are developing LED lighting solutions as smart street lights here by utilising design and resource capabilities here.’

The competition will be fierce, as hordes of companies flock in — China’s rapidly growing Opple Lighting recently put its stake in the ground for instance – and as indigenous companies vie for lighting contracts.

For now, Modi’s $1.2 billion pledge (it works out to a dollar for every Indian citizen) is helping to stoke a feverish chase. The same sort of thing is happening in China.

 Like in any rush, not all prospectors end up with gold.

And as CNN noted, ‘Whether the proposal will be an empty slogan or the biggest city-building project in Indian history remains to be seen. Some doubt that India, where many people live without basic infrastructure, should be focused on sci-fi-esque designs.’

But for the moment, there’s no stopping the picks and shovels of the digital lighting industry.

Photo is from arindambanerjee/Shutterstock